The National Endowment for the Arts has awarded funds for the first time to support an arts program run by a private corporation, giving $50,000 to the Rouse Co. to fund arts projects in Rouse shopping malls.

NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer was unavailable for comment but said in a statement that the award to the Columbia-based corporation's "Art in the Marketplace" program will foster public appreciation of the arts. "The shopping center of today reflects the fairs and marketplaces of Renaissance times," he said.

Among the projects to be funded under the award is a program called "City Visions" at Baltimore's Harborplace mall next June. Seventy-five local artists will display works in merchants' windows and the mall will host a weekend festival of visual and performing arts. In Glen Burnie, the Harundale Mall will begin an annual "Senior Arts Week" in September and three artists will produce a mural for permanent display.

According to an NEA spokesman, the Rouse Co. approached the endowment about the grant and they worked out an arrangement. Technically, the award is not a grant but a cooperative agreement. Grants may be awarded only to nonprofit organizations, which must submit applications for review by peer panels.

The Rouse Co. created a panel to review applications from 26 of its affiliates and subsidiaries and selected 10 winners. According to a statement released by the company and the endowment, the Rouse panel judged applications on criteria that included "appropriateness to the market" and "authenticity of arts and cultural institutions involved."

The NEA's advisory council approved the projects that will be funded through Rouse at its most recent meeting last weekend. Yesterday the arrangement was criticized by council member Bob Johnson, a Florida state senator. "I don't think we should spend federal money in privately owned, for-profit malls," he said.

Johnson also said the award seems unfair to other mall owners and businesses. If the endowment is going to fund corporate-run art programs, he said, "let's give everybody a shot at this."

But Roger Mandle, an NEA council member and deputy director of the National Gallery of Art, said the Rouse program should be viewed as a model project. "A lot of museums have worked with malls on education programs, on exhibits, on ways of reaching people in nontraditional places," he said. The Rouse Co. should be considered a contractor that is "offering a chance to expand the arts in a new way," he said.

He added that the endowment should not be criticized for awarding the funds to Rouse without inviting other mall owners to apply. "That's denying the initiative of the organization that went after the grant," he said. "That's backward logic."

Rouse officials were not available for comment. But in a statement, "Art in the Marketplace" Director Becky Hannum said the program fosters partnerships with local art organizations. "What better place to be exposed to a community's artistic excellence than in a shopping center, the public gathering place for the community?" she said.

The money will go to fund 10 projects over the next two years. Rouse will provide $100,000 to match the NEA funding on a 2 to 1 basis. Each project will also receive money from the host shopping center and local businesses.

Malls that will receive funding are Harborplace-the Gallery; Harundale Mall; Eastfield Mall in Springfield, Mass.; Jacksonville Landing in Jacksonville, Fla.; Military Circle Center in Norfolk; Riverwalk in New Orleans; St. Louis Union Station in St. Louis; Staten Island Mall in New York; Westlake Center in Seattle; and Willowbrook Mall in Wayne, N.J.